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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, No. 24. October 1, 1968

Visit to New Caledonia and Fiji

Visit to New Caledonia and Fiji

Photo of French serviceman in New Caledonia

In Noumea, every street sign is a monument to 'la gloire". What we do timidly (Nelson Street. Wellington Road, Churchill Drive) the French do with style, according each link with the past its (or his) proper designation. Thus the Rue de Sehastapol, Avenue du Marechal Foch, Rue Georges Clemenceau. And so on.

For those whose taste runs to the sculpted monument the unknown poilu strikes a heroic pose in the centre of town, Marechal Foch completes a notable double, NiceAdmiral Olry points a bronze hand (at what I am unable to tell) and "la fontaine monumentale marque le point zero du kilometrage des routes" (this last transcribed direct from the guide books-a pleasant exercise for French scholars).

Speaking of the language, none of us spoke French, though some thought they did.

Much of the youthful male population of Noumea seemed to beat a path to our hotel in order to instruct the girls of the party in the intricacies of the language. Vive international understanding!

This is not to disparage the undoubted advantages of a reasonable proficiency in the language. This was demonstrated when four of us set out to find the Chez Nicolas, our search for Nicolas' chez prompted by a report that one could buy a reasonably priced meal there. On a light budget, such a report has to be followed up.

Nicholas was elusive. We did what any self-respecting Britisher would do under the circumstances and tried the building labelled "Commissariat du Police". Our lone male lecturer had unwisely boasted his linguistic ability. We steered him towards the counter and the gendarmerie behind it.

New Caledonian policemen are armed. (A revolver slung at the hip makes the wearer appear somewhat unfriendly). Our spokesman tried a "Parlez Anglais?" as his opening gambit. The gendarmedie indicated that they didn't and ran over us a united cold eye. The conversation sagged right there, and Devil's Island loomed uncomfortably close.

The gendarmerie conferred briefly in French while we conferred in English. Then a very young policeman, evidently the Commissariat's prize linguist was summonsed from the recesses. Our lecturer did his stint again. "We-are-looking-for-le-Chez-Nicolas," he said in impeccable English, pitching his voice a shade louder.

It worked. Understanding dawned on five French faces. We were not criminals, just a few fool tourists who couldn't find their way. They beamed, rattled off directions which we only imperfectly understood, we smiled (with relief) and "merci-d" our way out. We never did get to Chez Nicolas. Somehow we went off the notion. Our lecturer stopped boasting about his French.

The cost of living in New Caledonia was an unpleasant shock, in spite of warnings.

Our hotel was in the moderate tariff bracket. We had been allowed to take $N.Z.256 out of the country and there were 12 days in Fiji to come. This meant that we only bedded and breakfasted at the hotel and organised lunch and dinner as we could afford it.

This was not so spartan as you can have an adequate lunch on a loaf of French bread, (lb of butter, some sliced cold meat from the supermarket and, if one is feeling extravagant, a New Zealand apple, for which one of us paid two shillings.

Such a lunch has to be washed down with something. We explored the supermarket, passed by shelves loaded with liquor and stopped at the soft drink display. Nestling coyly between the Pepsi and the Coca was a drink new to us. The label proclaimed the contents to be "Pschitt!" This we had to have. It was true to label.

We dined more lavishly at the Asia restaurant on Chinese food, at the Dolce Vita on French food. Some tried Indonesian cooking. Others stayed with a safe steak and chips.

More than half the population of New Caledonia is less than 20 years old. This is because of the toll inflicted by French motorists who are all mad. Noumeans don't drive towards traffic lights-they drive at them! Another cute trick, which frightens hell out of the foreign pedestrian, is for the driver to pretend he is not going to stop for the red light-or for the pedestrian who is now trapped on the crossing. At the nth second, the driver stands on everything. If the tires don't scream, he hasn't done it properly and has to try again at the next crossing. Meantime he contents himself with revving menacingly at anything on foot.

The old colonial powers left an imprint on their territories that has never been eradicated. Where New Caledonia is French. Fiji is unmistakably British.

Where New Caledonia's airport at Tontouta was a landing strip, a few shed-like structures and one unhurried official taking an eternity to pass through a plane load of hot and weary passengers, Nandi is modern, ordered, clean and efficient. Too efficient! An Indian customs official in impeccable whiles deftly searched my bags for dutiable goods. He was courteous and impersonal. His English had Welsh overtones.

The shops here were owned and operated by Indians whose forebears arrived last century as indentured labourers. This is part of Fiji's present day problem. The Indian population has swelled and now outstrips the Fijian.

Our tour of the country, more accurately of its main island Vitu Levu was to be pretty comprehensive. In twelve days, we were to travel round the island, taking in a sugar mill, a gold mine, a Japanese fishing venture, a copra factory, a coconut plantation on the way.

British efficiency does not extend to the roads. We travelled by bus throughout-Fijian buses have unglassed windows and once out of the towns the roads are narrow and unsealed. In a hot climate this means dust-in one's eyes, hair and right through the clothes on to the skin.

Suva, Lautoka and Nadi-each is a shopper's paradise. None is a big place by New Zealand standards but all are packed with duty free goods.

The mere sight of so many transistor radios, watches, dress materials, pieces of jewellery (the list goes on and on) makes one feel most acquisitive. There is something about these places-maybe it is the sheer quantity and variety of goods on display, or maybe it is the insidious pressure of the Indian shopkeepers to buy-that makes one cast off normal restraint. I had two perfectly good watches; I now have three, a rather garish umbrella which pops up at the press of a button (highly unsuitable for Wellington's winds) a car radio and some saris I'll never wear. This is insanity indeed.

No wonder these people look indulgently on the antics of tourists, some of whom do things that would not be tolerated back home and make other squirm with embarrassment for them. Tourists mean money. This Fiji needs.

Edna Mahoney.

Photo of street sign for Avenue de la Victoire